Officials announced Thursday that the death toll from wildfires on Maui now stands at 55, making it one of the deadliest blazes in the last century.
The new fatality count is a significant jump from the 36 confirmed dead on Wednesday, a day after the fire ignited, sending the historic Hawaiian tourist destination town of Lahaina up in flames. The death toll has increased as rescuers have been able to reach parts of the island previously inaccessible due to fires and other obstructions.
“What we’ve seen today has been catastrophic,” Hawaii Gov. Josh Green (D) said during a news conference Thursday after walking through Lahaina, calling the event likely the largest natural disaster in the state’s history. “We’ve also seen many hundreds of homes destroyed, and that’s going to take a great deal of time to recover from.”
“When you see the full extent of the destruction of Lahaina… it will shock you,” he added later, saying it will take years and billions of dollars to rebuild the town. “It does appear like a bomb went off.”
The new death toll approaches the fatality count from California’s 2018 Camp Fire, which claimed 85 lives and ranks as the deadliest wildfire in recent history.
“We are grieving with each other during this inconsolable time,” Maui County Mayor Richard Bissen Jr. said in a recorded statement early Thursday. “In the days ahead, we will be stronger as a ‘kaiaulu,’ or community, as we rebuild with resilience and aloha.”
The series of wildfires, fueled by drought and winds from the passing Hurricane Dora, took the island by surprise and burned more than 270 buildings to the ground in Lahaina, a bustling community on the island’s west side.
The community was nearly wiped out, leaving a lighthouse and the country’s oldest banyan tree among the few landmarks still standing.
“Banyan Tree in Lahaina smoldering at the base, but still standing. Just about the only thing left, other than the Lighthouse,” Sen. Brian Schatz (D-Hawaii) wrote on Twitter on Thursday, sharing videos of the decimated town.
Green said Thursday that thousands of residents would need to be housed as recovery efforts begin, saying he had appealed to the White House for a presidential disaster declaration that had been approved earlier in the day. The designation will provide grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and support for residents and small businesses.
Bissen added during the media briefing that rescue efforts were ongoing and that officials hoped they would still find residents who may need help.
“We will rebuild,” the mayor said at the news conference. “It’s difficult to describe, but there are lots of people who will need a lot of help.”
President Joe Biden, in approving the disaster declaration and expanded federal aid, said, “Our prayers are with the people of Hawaii, but not just our prayers. Every asset we have will be available to them.”
The precise cause of the fires remains unknown, but experts say climate change is expected to make such disasters only more intense and more frequent.
“It’s leading to these unpredictable or unforeseen combinations that we’re seeing right now and that are fueling this extreme fire weather,” Kelsey Copes-Gerbitz, a researcher on the University of British Columbia’s faculty of forestry, told The Associated Press, referring to the dry vegetation combined with strong hurricane winds.
The death toll in this story has been updated.